Fatal distraction – An Irishman’s Diary about life, death, and football
John Thomson: defied his slight physique to become a hero between the goalposts for both Celtic and Scotland
In the Methuen Book of Poems for Every Day, the entry for September 10th is a short one, entitled “Breakfast”, by Wilfrid Gibson. It’s war poetry, from the autumn of 1914. And it’s unusual for, among other things, the role of football in the event described:
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs/Because the shells were screeching overhead./I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread/That Hull United would beat Halifax/When Jimmy Stainthorpe played full-back instead/Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head/And cursed, and took the bet, and dropt back dead./We ate our breakfast lying on our backs/Because the shells were screeching overhead.
Northumberland-born, Gibson was not strictly a war poet. He tried to enlist several times but was turned down due to poor eyesight and generally bad health. And although he did lose close friends in the conflict, the fatality described is an imaginary one, suggested by a news item of the period.
The reported real-life “Ginger” was a Scotsman and had been luckier, suffering a mere leg wound. But as quoted in the press, he blamed his injury on a conversation about football, “because I got too excited in arguing with Wee Geordie Ferris, of our company, about Queen’s Park Rangers and their chances this season”.
Some close readers have detected the involvement of an imperialist Londoner in transcribing this quotation. And it does seem more likely that a Gordon Highlander – the regiment involved – might have meant the Scottish club Queen’s Park, minus the “Rangers”.
In any case, Gibson relocated the argument to his native north of England, although he probably chose “Halifax” only because, in that odd abbabbbab scheme, it rhymed with “backs”.
This and the prominence of the football theme, compared with the almost throwaway reference to death, was among the things that set the poem apart at the time. British war poetry was still at the jingoistic stage then. Gibson’s dispassionate treatment of the subject was ahead of the curve.
Alas for his poetic reputation, at least, he had the misfortune to survive the war by nearly half a century, during which he was gradually forgotten. As early as the 1930s, he described himself as “one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him”.
Speaking of the 1930s, and of life, death, and football as recorded by poets, I unearthed another example of the genre this week, by coincidence. There was no anthology involved, because to be charitable, the verse is not of high standard.
But the poem was based entirely on a real event. And if the backdrop isn’t war, exactly, it’s something close to that – a Celtic-Rangers derby.
Here’s the opening verse: “On the fifth day of September/’Gainst the Rangers club he played./From defeat he saved the Celtic,/Ah, but what a price he paid./The ball comes on the centre’s toe/But John runs out and dives,/The ball rolls by, but John lies still,/For his club this hero died.”
The game in question took place 86 years ago this week, in 1931. And the unfortunate goalkeeper was John Thomson, a 22-year-old who had defied his slight physique to become a hero between the goalposts for both Celtic and Scotland.
It’s a cliché of modern football that goalkeepers are overprotected. If they are, the fate of Thomson may be one reason why. Already, a year earlier, he had broken his jaw, fractured ribs, and lost two teeth when diving at an opponent’s feet.
In the Rangers game, it was a knee to the head – accidental by all accounts – that did the damage. The other player, striker Sam English, was unhurt, at least physically. But by his own account, he never fully recovered either. Forced to move south to Liverpool the following season, he described the rest of his career as “joyless”.
English, ironically, was Irish. From Co Derry, he played for the all-Ireland national team of that time. And to add to the complications of the tragedy, Thomson was an evangelical Protestant Scot, playing for a team synonymous with Irish Catholics.
As for the ballad, what it lacks in Parnassian qualities, it makes up for by an absence of Old-Firm bitterness. The tone is entirely elegiac:
“So play up Glasgow Celtic,/Stand up and play the game,/For in your goal a spirt stands,/Johnny Thomson is his name./Farewell my darling Johnny,/Prince of players we must part,/No more we’ll stand and cheer you/On the slopes of Celtic Park.”